As Hurricane Katrina threatened in the Gulf of Mexico nine years ago, Nelda Millon led 27 members of her extended family on an exodus from New Orleans. First they made their way to Houston, then to Phoenix. They returned home a few years later. To this day, whenever a hurricane forms in the Gulf, Millon’s phone rings. “Are we leaving or staying?” her family asks.
In New Orleans, evacuation requires decisions that must be made early before traffic builds, motels fill up, roads flood, or winds reach dangerous levels. In 2005, when Katrina loomed in the Gulf, most New Orleanians did leave town, but roughly 100,000 were left behind. Many lacked a car or money for transportation, or had special needs that made evacuation impossible. Others were stranded because they practiced “vertical evacuation,” staying with family that lived on higher ground or renting hotel rooms in buildings that had proven safe in the past. “We will never do that again,” said Lt. Col. Jerry Sneed, the city’s deputy mayor of Public Safety and Homeland Security.
In fact, New Orleans – once Exhibit A for how badly this nation and local governments deal with disaster – has become a model for how evacuation from an urban area should work. In many cities, disaster plans (if they exist) are close to meaningless. This used to be the case in New Orleans. In 2005, when Katrina hit and the federal levees broke, the city and state had evacuation plans, but no contracts in place for buses or trains to help people leave the city.
That’s all changed. “New Orleans is doing one of the better jobs in the country of preparing for disaster,” said John Renne, an expert on evacuating car-less and vulnerable populations and the director of the Merritt C. Becker Transportation Institute at the University of New Orleans. Renne has developed detailed data showing which areas of New Orleans are most likely to use city-assisted evacuation. The city’s emergency planners, like emergency planners across the country, also use computer-simulation models developed in the state, at Louisiana State University.
Now, if the city declares a mandatory evacuation, Sneed and his state and federal colleagues can implement a plan that, within 36 hours, will move all non-evacuated city residents and their pets to safety. Passengers pay nothing. The state of Louisiana will feed and shelter them until it’s safe to return, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency picking up at least 75 percent of the cost.
The plan has been implemented once already. In 2008, as Hurricane Gustav churned toward land, the city used a combination of buses, trains and planes to evacuate 18,000 people and their pets to emergency shelters in Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Georgia and non-coastal Mississippi and Louisiana.
New Orleans has ironed out wrinkles discovered during Gustav by better preparing remote shelters and developing systems to keep shelter evacuees informed about conditions in New Orleans so they can plan their return. The city also worked the tourism industry into its plans to avoid some Gustav-related hiccups: tourists were stranded in town and hospitality workers whom the city had helped to evacuate were docked pay for not returning on time. “We have a better process to ensure that people come back when we need them back, not too soon and not too late,” Sneed said.
Evacuteer.org, a nonprofit devoted to training volunteers to react to disasters, was formed in the wake of Gustav. Robert Fogarty, a young AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer who was based at City Hall at the time, founded the organization as an all-volunteer group in 2009. It now has one staffer funded by the city’s budget and now is seen as an innovator: it regularly works with groups from other cities and has entertained officials from several other countries that are trying to replicate the Evacuteer.org model.
The group’s primary mission is to annually train 500 volunteers, or evacuteers, whose job it is to streamline the evacuation process, by registering everyone and their pets at the city’s 17 pickup points, making sure that people don’t exceed rules for carry-ons – one small bag – and then assigning each person and creature a barcode. Evacuees then simply ride a bus to the depot, walk by a bar-code scanner and head out of town.
Evacuteers also “activate” for lower-level storms, like Hurricane Isaac last summer, when the city asked city residents to “shelter in place,” rather than leave town. After the slow-moving storm, city non-emergency requests for assistance with debris, flooding, and power outages had an average 26-minute wait-time. City officials asked Evacuteer.org to send trained phone specialists, who helped bring wait times down below two minutes.
But all the planning in the world can’t be successful if people aren’t ready to evacuate. Some say that, as long as the memory of Katrina remains fresh, New Orleanians will never hesitate to flee. But Renne still worries about complacency. “We’ve now gone a number of years without any hurricanes and there are people who have moved to the city who have never experienced a hurricane evacuation,” he said. “We are fighting a constant, uphill battle to make sure that people are aware of the risks that Mother Nature places on us.”
Katy Reckdahl is a New Orleans-based news reporter who is a frequent contributor to the New Orleans Advocate and the Hechinger Report and has written for The Times-Picayune, The New York Times, The Daily Beast, The Weather Channel, The Nation, Next City, and the Christian Science Monitor.